Unpaid internships are a rite of passage for many in the United States and Canada. It is legal to hire an intern and offer no monetary compensation. However, the Department of Labor has a set of guidelines that must be followed to ensure legality. But even if an internship is in compliance with these guidelines, is it really fair to expect someone to work without pay?
Internships Filling a Void
Internships can be an important part of the college learning experience. With the right internship, students can gain hands-on work experience, put classroom concepts into practice and even lay the foundation for a future career. Unfortunately, this is an ideal and not always realized scenario. Some internships end up amounting to nothing more than a brief period of unpaid grunt work. Still, many students are eager to take any opportunity that comes their way. And the promise of work experience on an otherwise spare resume can lead some to accept any job they can.
Unfortunately, this hunger for experience leads many students to take unpaid internships that ultimately do not benefit them at all. They may spend their internship period isolated from the actual work going on around them and intern tasks might be as menial as running personal errands for supervisors. This issue has been compounded by the recession. As companies are losing profit and cutting jobs, some are looking for unpaid interns to fill in the gaps left by laid-off employees. Though this may seem like a practical, no-cost solution to personal problems, this and other practices commonly adopted by intern employers are in violation of the Department of Labor’s guidelines for a legal unpaid internship.
The Department of Labor’s guidelines consists of six rules that must be followed for an internship to be legally compliant. These rules are mostly in the interest of the intern. For example, it is specifically stated that the internship must be educational and must be for the benefit of the intern, not the employer. Employers are further barred from directly benefiting from the intern’s work and from using interns as stand-ins for paid employees. The rules do explicitly say that the intern is not necessarily entitled to a paid job when the internship period is over, providing employers with some cover. Some critics feel that the guidelines are too strict, but they do help to ensure that interns are not being taken advantage of in their quests for work experience.
One complaint about unpaid internships is that, even if legally compliant, the practice strongly favors those who can afford to work without compensation. Unpaid interns might live off of money given to them by family members and therefore do not need a paying job. But this is not an option for many students. In order to support themselves, they must either take out personal loans, an unappealing prospect for those with existing student loans, or hold a job with adequate pay. Many college students end up taking jobs that are not in their area of interest but get the bills paid. This may end up taking up whatever free time they have outside of class that could be spent on an internship.
But unpaid internships are not closed off to students who lack a benefactor. Many students qualify for federal work-study funding, which is a form of financial aid that allows students to earn compensation for unpaid work experience. This can allow those who need compensation for work to take an unpaid position that will ultimately benefit them, instead of taking a job for the sole purpose of making money.
Another way that unpaid internships can provide compensation is to offer course credit in exchange for work. This credit may save students money on tuition, particularly if payment happens on a per-class basis. The added bonus of completing an internship for course credit is that your school or professor will likely need to approve it. This may provide some reassurance that the work will be educationally relevant.
The practice of unpaid internships may not be ideal – it’d probably be difficult to find an intern who would object to being paid, even if they enjoyed their work and felt the experience itself was valuable. But it’s difficult to get a job with no experience. And given that many businesses and organizations are struggling to hang on to experienced staff, securing a legally compliant, unpaid internship might be one of the better ways to get your foot in the door of today’s tough job market.